Behind-the-scenes at the UK’s biggest pea factory
There’s no denying the nation’s love of gorgeous green peas; whether you add them to your fish pie, stir them through a curry, blitz them into soup or top them with salty butter, they are so versatile.
Keen to learn more about the popular pods I went to Birds Eye HQ, at the busiest time of their year, to discover the farm-to-fork story of the pea.
For the sake of investigative journalism I woke at the crack of dawn and took a train to Hull where I donned a (very attractive) hair net and (trés chic) high-vis jacket to see the military-like procedure in action.
In the countryside, far from city life and surrounded by beautiful patchwork fields, there is an essential part of British vegetable production happening – the Birds Eye pea harvest. The harvest, which only lasts for 10 weeks, requires absolute precision and real dedication from the farmers, field team and factory workers. They work continuous 12-hour shifts until every last pea is plucked from the ground.
When speaking to the farmers in the fields, one thing was for certain – they really know their stuff when it comes to peas. I was lucky enough to be privy to some of their knowledge; I learnt about soil types (nutrient-rich but not too wet is best), perfect pea-growing weather conditions (they like dry and warm but not too hot) and the best picking techniques (quickly, to preserve freshness, but be gentle) – all from farmers who are in their second, or third, generation with Birds Eye. After learning the basics I was allowed to eat fresh peas straight from the vine – look how perfectly formed these sweet, green peas were – you can’t get fresher than that!
Next up, a ride on a viner – a special harvesting machine that looks as if it would surely destroy any delicate peas it comes across. In fact, the huge machines gently comb the pods from the vines as they track up and down the fields, using a massive drum to release the peas, they then store them safely until it’s time for a pea-drop into the next truck.
I climbed aboard the monster machine, pretending I wasn’t scared of falling down the ladder and into its path, and joined the incredibly friendly driver, called Brian, in the cockpit. He happily told me all about his long career in farming whilst I tried my best to drive the beast. The ride was surprisingly smooth, probably down to the GPS system which uses computer mapping to keep the viner in a straight line and at an even speed. The only near-disaster was when I saw a huge hare hopping through the field and in my excitement nearly lost control when turning the corner (I’m a London girl, I don’t see wildlife that often!)
Once the peas have been picked, timing is crucial – Birds Eye commit to taking no longer than 150 minutes between field and freezer – any peas not received and processed within this time limit cannot be called Birds Eye peas.
Next off I hurried to the factory where pea harvesting becomes an exact science. When the fresh peas arrive, by the truckload, they go through Birds Eye’s meticulous quality assurance tests to make sure every bag has peas that look, and taste, exactly the same no matter what time of year it is – the peas you eat with your Christmas dinner should be the same as those you have in your summer potato salad.
The first stage of the process sees the peas go through a tenderometer (yes, really) where a mechanical jaw-like machine gives a percentage score – only peas above 90% can be accepted into the factory. The team also hold tasting sessions three times-a-day when they compare one batch of Birds Eye peas with those picked at a different time of day or with competitor brands. Each Birds Eye pea must be a vibrant green (with no hints of yellow), soft, with a slight pop but not chewy in texture, taste fresh and sweet every time.
Timing is of the essence so it’s crucial that the factory runs faultlessly. Whichever way you look, there are neatly separated conveyor belts carrying fresh peas to their next destination. After several thorough washes and a quick blanch at 92°C they arrive in the blast freezer where they’re blown around (to prevent sticking together) at a cool -37°C – after a quick look in the freezer I can confirm that it is cold enough to make your face ache and, according to our guide, also cold enough to cure any hangover.
I left the factory feeling genuinely uplifted by the determination and hard work of the Birds Eye team who consistently produce brilliant peas for us to buy and freeze by the bagful… as well as feeling thoroughly pea-ed out.